Night Skies Entertainment
Meteor showers everyone can see
Every year with some regularity the Earth passes through space debris, such as comet dust or left over bits of space collisions and lights up the sky with a shower of meteors. As this dust enters the atmosphere they burn up and create flashes of light across the sky, as kids we called them shooting or falling stars, it was customary in my neck of the woods to make a wish. These falling/shooting stars are another name for a meteor.
What Exactly are Meteors?
Meteors are grains of sand to boulder sized particles of debris (dust, bits of rock) floating in space. Sometimes these patches of debris are in the Earth's path or orbit. When Earth passes through these debris piles and the debris enters the Earth's atmosphere, the visible path it makes is called a meteor. Often the debris burns up in this process, but not always, if it lands on Earth and survives impact, it is called a meteorite.
Millions of meteors happen yearly, but a meteor shower only happens when it passes through a wide swatch of space debris, that results in meteors every few minutes or seconds. Just like Earth rotates on an orbit, so to do many of these debris piles, and at certain intervals these orbits cross paths, thus having a yearly encounter with them.
The speed with which they enter the Earth's atmosphere, dictates how long it's seen flashing across the sky. A fast-moving one will be visible for a shorter time than a slower moving one would. The chemical composition and speed of the meteoroid decides the visible light colour seen and has various hues. Some meteors have a tendency to turn into fireballs, which simply means it is brighter than normal. According to the American Meteor Society in 2011 there were 4,589 fireballs blazing across the skies.
Meteor showers are wider than the earth, so you can see a shower scattered over the entire sky and not just one country. With that said, sometimes one hemisphere gets a better show than the other hemisphere, as the constellations with which these shows seems to originate from are too low in the sky to see fully, or there is only a very small window before dawn when it does rise high enough to be seen easier.
The Stronger Showers Seen Throughout The Year
Quadrantids Meteor Shower
The first shower of the year starts right at the beginning of the year for five days and it peaks for only a few hours on the eve and early morning of the 2nd and 3rd. Observers in the Northern hemisphere will see a range of ten to sixty meteors per hour (mph) during the height of activity. The Southern hemisphere will see considerably fewer numbers.
They will seem to come from or radiate from a section of the night skies where Hercules, Bootes and Draco meet. There are other smaller or less significant meteor showers going on at the same time as this one, follow its path backwards and see where it radiates from, you might not be seeing a Quadrantid.
This is an often times a spectacular show, but for the Northern hemisphere in the dead of winter, many miss it due to weather.
Lyrids Meteor Shower
The oldest of the meteor showers runs during mid April for no longer than a week peaking during the evening of April 21st and the early morning of April 22nd.
It is a great spring time show with the shower being brightly coloured and have a tendency to leave trails that last a few seconds each as they are moving at a more moderate rate. You will see anywhere from five to twenty mph, but this shower has surprised observers around the world with a burst of activity with mph being reported in the range of ninety to one hundred and twelve.
Eta Aquariids Meteor Shower
Mid April to early May is when the Earth passes through Halley's Comet space debris and rewards the Earth with the Eta Aquariids meteor shower. It peaks during the night of May 5th and early predawn hours of May 6th. They are moving fast and will only be visible for a moment, with a rate of activity that is near sixty mph, not to mention they also tend to turn into short-lived fireballs, it is a worth while show to watch.
Those in the Northern hemisphere will experience reduced activity as the Aquarius constellation, which is where this shower appears to come from, is below the horizon for the most part. Observers can expect to see thirty or so meteors per hour.
Southern Delta Aquariids Meteor Shower
The brightest star of the Aquarius constellation seems to become active as two meteor showers radiate from the area, The Southern Delta meteor shower and The Northern Delta meteor shower. During early July till Mid August with a peak in activity around the end of July, the 29th or 30th the Southern Delta shower offers upwards of fifteen meteors per hour. And during Mid July until September the Northern Delta shower will peak the evening of August 13th and the morning of August the 14th, with a maximum of ten meteors per hour.
The constellation never gets high in the sky for Northern hemisphere observers, but has produced a reliable show for years and is the perfect meteor shower to wet ones appetite for the larger Perseids shower.
Perseids Meteor Shower
This shower is the more well-known of meteor showers that starts mid July and ends mid August. This
Orionids Meteor Shower
A second shower from Halley's Comet's dust that happens early October right through to early November though it does peak the evening of October 22nd and the early hours of the 23rd. It is a prolific shower with activity having been as high as fifty to seventy per hour at the peak times. Northern hemisphere observers will see fewer than those in the Southern hemisphere.
The shower averages closer to twenty meteors per hour for the Northern hemisphere and those in the Southern hemisphere will see around thirty meteors per hour. As with all meteor showers, they seem to originate from one point in the sky or certain constellations, for this shower seek out the Orion constellation.
Leonids Meteor Shower
This week long shower runs during the third week of November and it often peaks November 16th and 17th with ten meteors per hour. Radiating from the Leo constellation, it associates with a comet known as Tempel-Tuttle. They are known for bright lights and a tendency to turn to fireballs which is a perfect recipe for a entertaining meteor shower.
Leonids are known for some of the more spectacular displays of the night skies but these displays are periodic. Every thirty-three years there is enhanced activity, most recently during the years 1998-2002, they have weakened ever since.
Geminids Meteor Shower
Last shower of the year is the youngest of them all, discovered only 150 years ago. It can be seen by everyone and starts early December and runs for about two weeks, peaking during the 15th and the early mornings of the 16th. The peak is a very small window of a few hours usually the pre dawn hours on the 16th.
Some years, for reasons unknown, they have a intense burst of activity of up to one hundred and sixty meteors per hour. On average though, Northern hemispheres under ideal conditions will see fifty to eighty meteors per hour, Southern hemispheres will see fewer, around twenty mph.
Observers of the Geminids Meteor Shower
For a great night of sky watching
Watching meteor showers is a relatively easy thing to do, particularly the showers I have listed above as they are the stronger ones, not the only ones.
Obviously, if you're outside all night into the wee hours of the morning, it would prudent to bring a chair and blanket, depending on the season I may bring food or drink with me.
This may sound silly, but you need darkness. I really did not realize just how bright cities are until I tried watching the night skies. If you're in a big, bright lit city, you may have to find somewhere a little less bright, the darker your surroundings, the better chance you have of seeing the shower. At the worst, try to keep nearby sources of light out of your sight, moving so it is blocked by trees or a building.
Do not look in one spot all night, try to keep your gaze moving all over the area you are looking at without craning your neck every which way to do so. Staring at one spot will lessen your chances of catching a meteor.
If you happen to see a meteor, visually trace it backwards to the apparent 'start' point or radiant point. Meteors seem to come from the same place, while this is a trick on your perception, it does help in narrowing down the sky as to where to look. Also if you know where to look for the constellation, as all meteor showers radiate from a constellation, you can also increase your chances by focusing your gaze there.
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Solar System Exploration: Planets: Meteors & Meteorites: Overview. (n.d.). Retrieved August 23, 2014.
Meteors - "Shooting Stars" or "Falling Stars"; Meteor Showers ... (n.d.). Retrieved August 23, 2014.
Curious About Astronomy? Comets, Meteors and Asteroids. (n.d.). Retrieved August 23, 2014.